Under the wild hair of a pop icon is a man for all time

Einstein on the Beach - The New Quotable Einstein - Das verschmähte Genie - Einstein in Berlin - Einstein in Berlin - Einstein - 'Subtle is the Lord' - Einstein's Miraculous Year - The Invisible Century - A World Without Time - Einstein Defiant
December 9, 2005

Einstein year offered David Rowe and Robert Schulmann new perspectives on the celebrity scientist, his era, his friends and rivals, and his legacy

As the Einstein centennial year draws to a close, what began at least nominally as a celebration of his scientific achievements in 1905, his annus mirabilis , mushroomed quite predictably into a larger engagement with the man and his times. Authors experimented with various genres of biography, some drawing on cultural and political history to retell Einstein's story, others pairing him with famous contemporaries such as Sigmund Freud in an effort to contextualise his thought. The centennial year also helped to remind us that the celebrant was an unusually photogenic subject, as evidenced by the beautifully illustrated Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity by Andrew Robinson , literary editor of The Times Higher . His book helps undercut the standard image of Einstein as a loner by emphasising that his accessibility - to photographers, journalists, political activists and the general public - was instrumental to his fame and stardom.

In Einstein on the Beach , experts in a variety of fields have produced a colourful tapestry woven from essays on the fascination with Einstein's wild hair and the convolutions of his brain; the impact of Einsteinian images on film, architecture and art; his real-life relationships with Freud and the art historian Aby Warburg; and the virtual interactions of two icons of pop culture, Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. For those who read German, this loosely organised compendium probes the impact of Einsteinian images in popular culture as never before. Editor Michael Hagner chose the perfect title for this endeavour by borrowing from Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, who used Einsteinian imagery in place of a conventional libretto for their postmodern "portrait opera" Einstein on the Beach, itself a relativistic experiment. After searching for a famous name that suited their purpose - Chaplin, Gandhi and even Hitler first came to mind - they hit on Einstein. As Glass recounts in Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity , "everyone already knew who Einstein was; the audience would complete the work by determining the meaning for themselves".

For readers keen on gaining familiarity with the man behind the phenomenon, one of the surest routes to determining such meaning is provided by Alice Calaprice in her enlarged commemorative edition of The New Quotable Einstein . Equations and texts are, after all, Einstein's true monument, and Calaprice lays out a veritable feast of pithy and telling aphorisms drawn from his speeches and letters. As in the earlier editions, the material is set out under an array of comprehensive thematic headings, and in all cases she is at pains to provide the source for the comment at hand. Particularly valuable for insights into the personal Einstein in the last year and a half of his life are his telephone monologues, faithfully recorded in a journal and presented here in an appendix. They reveal a private Einstein who never strove for the monumental phrase but was able to deliver it in a seemingly effortless off-the-cuff manner.

A number of authors have followed the strategy of coming to grips with their historical subject by concentrating fire on their protagonist's interactions in specific geographic locales. One such effort is Das Verschmähte Genie: Albert Einstein und die Schweiz (The Spurned Genius: Albert Einstein and Switzerland). In spite of its rather ominous title, Alexis Schwarzenbach's volume paints a wholly convincing portrait of the young student and patent-office clerk by singling out Swiss democratic tradition as the seedbed of his burgeoning political interests. However, the author does not shrink from describing some of the disappointments that dogged Einstein's relationship with Switzerland, of which he became a citizen in 1901, aged 22. On the whole, though, Schwarzenbach makes it clear why his subject felt a special affinity for the Alpine republic that had never succumbed to the temptations of great-power politics, a virtue that could scarcely be claimed for Einstein's native Germany nor for his third home, the United States.

Schwarzenbach discusses Einstein's ongoing relationship with Switzerland even after the latter's departure from Zurich for Berlin in 1914. In particular, he is merciless in exposing the half-hearted attempts by the Swiss government to intercede on Einstein's behalf after he was stripped of German citizenship in the spring of 1933.

For a closer examination of the Berlin years (1914-33), we are fortunate to have two works that, in spite of their identical titles, tackle their subject in contrasting fashion. Thomas Levenson's hefty Einstein in Berlin appeared in English in 2003, while Hubert Goenner's slim volume of the same name was published in German this year. Levenson is magisterial in his portrayal of imperial Germany during the 1914-18 war but far less convincing in his examination of the Weimar Republic that succeeded it.

Unfortunately, this problem is compounded by Levenson's fateful error of treating Einstein as "a kind of human Geiger counter tracing Berlin's state and fate at any moment for 18 crucial years".

Goenner is far more subtle and effective in his assessment of the interplay between locale and protagonist: "Berlin was neither formed by him, nor would Einstein ever have said: 'I am a Berliner'." A set of sketches conjures up the cultural, social and political environment of Berlin, which serves as a framework into which Goenner then brilliantly embeds his protagonist. Goenner has achieved a genuinely remarkable feat in summoning up for the reader a mesh of personal relationships that bound Einstein to fellow academics, to his social circle, to the world of politics and to his emerging Jewish identity.

No such claim can be made for the ambitious life by Jürgen Neffe. His biography is impressive in its girth and almost reckless in its author's attempt to cover the gamut from cradle to grave. But it has no specificity of locale, nor is there any topic too far ranging to escape Neffe's net. He has even dared to track the teams of researchers who have tried to unravel the secrets of Einstein's science, politics and personal life. In the end, Neffe has produced an interesting inversion of Levenson's failing. Where Levenson clings to the conceit that Einstein is the ideal navigational aid for threading one's way through 1920s Berlin, Neffe breathes too heavily down Einstein's neck. In his hot pursuit, he loses sight of the finely textured layers that give Goenner's Berlin its powerful sense of authenticity.

The passing year also occasioned the re-publication of Abraham Pais's masterpiece, " Subtle is the Lord ", aptly described in The Times Higher as "the biography that Einstein would have wanted" when it appeared in 1982.

Much has happened in Einstein scholarship since then, so parts of the book have now been superseded (for example, Pais's account of Einstein's road to the general theory of relativity). Nevertheless, it continues to be the single most comprehensive study of Einstein's scientific work. In a new foreword, Roger Penrose succinctly captures the spirit of Pais and the significance of his achievement: "The world of science is greatly fortunate that a theoretical physicist of the distinction of Abraham Pais should have discovered within himself not only a particular talent for scientific biography but also a passionate desire to convey to us his unique perspective on the momentous developments in 20th-century physics that he had witnessed."

Einstein's singularly triumphant scientific career began in 1905 when he came on to the scientific scene with five major papers, all of them published in Germany's leading physics journal, Annalen der Physik . Two represent landmark works on molecular dimensions and Brownian motion, whereas two others launched what came to be called the special theory of relativity. The fifth, however, was long considered a brilliant misfire, presenting the radical notion that light energy was emitted in discrete quanta. None makes easy reading even for someone with a solid theoretical training. Those without the technical prerequisites or stamina will be well served by the analysis in John Rigden's Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness . Rigden's approach stands in marked contrast to the one adopted by Pais, who chose to analyse the 1905 papers separately in order to embed them in larger discussions of relativity and quantum theory. By so doing, Pais was able to convey the grandeur of Einstein's holistic vision that led him on his decades-long quest for a field theory uniting gravity and electromagnetism.

Those undaunted by arcane technical arguments have the option of advancing to John Stachel's "honours class", taught by the founding editor of the ongoing edition of Einstein's papers. This project, which has now produced nine of a projected thirty volumes, constitutes the definitive source for Einstein's writings and correspondence up to 1921. For the centennial year, Stachel prepared a new edition of his Einstein's Miraculous Year , a compendium based on texts and commentary from volume two of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein . The new edition also contains a new essay by Stachel devoted to the young Einstein.

Drawing heavily on his subject's autobiographical reflections about the relationship between thought and language in his struggles to understand deep physical problems, Stachel paints a not-unfamiliar picture of Einstein as a solitary genius whose driving ideas were entirely his own. Einstein's brain bubbled with thought experiments that somehow defied conventional language; it was a style of doing physics that depended on vivid imagery and hunches. Stachel argues that, at the initial stage, Einstein's thinking was "a solitary activity, primarily non-verbal in nature", but then he afterwards tried to articulate his ideas by bouncing them off various people who served as his "sounding boards". One of the more important was his lifelong friend Michele Besso. In the most famous of his five 1905 papers, "On the electrodynamics of moving bodies", Einstein cited not a single explicit reference to the published literature. Instead, he ended by noting that his "friend and colleague M. Besso steadfastly stood by (him) in (his) work", offering "several valuable suggestions". Stachel acknowledges that Besso was helpful, but claims he "was not capable of any creative effort of his own".

Still, the young Einstein needed to communicate, just as he required human support and intimacy, so he tried to find both through his ill-fated relationship with Mileva Maric+c , the woman he married in 1903. Ever since the recovery and publication of their early love letters in the mid-1980s, the long-forgotten Maric+c has been at the epicentre of a swirling controversy in which her supporters have accused Einstein of heartless egotism, womanising and misogyny.

Skirting this minefield, Stachel touches instead on the interplay between Einstein's intellectual and erotic lives circa 1905. But rather than pursuing this promising lead, he expends a great deal of ink trying to show that Mileva was just another sounding board, and a rather hollow one at that. Perhaps... but even if she was, what can be said with certainty is that Einstein discussed physics on an almost daily basis with numerous individuals throughout his life. Pais identified no fewer than 31 physicists and mathematicians who collaborated with Einstein, many of them all but forgotten today. Is it really credible to imagine that none of them contributed anything of significance to his work?

Without a doubt, 1905 represents a true watershed, but we can be just as sure that the emergence and reception of relativity theory would not have been possible without the contributions of figures such as H. A. Lorentz, Henri Poincare, Hermann Minkowski and Max von Laue. Nor should we imagine that the birth of relativity in 1905 was simply Einstein's triumphant insight into a deeper truth about physical reality that evaded all his older rivals. When he made his move, he was not merely performing a Gestalt-switch that established a new paradigm, while Lorentz, who still clung to a motionless ether hovering in absolute space, lost out because of his antiquated world-view.

Those who were persuaded by Einstein's "Electrodynamics of moving bodies" regarded it as a brilliant contribution to Lorentz's electron theory. Indeed, this was how one of Einstein's strongest supporters, von Laue, presented relativity to the German physics community.

Several recent studies have looked at factors beyond the confines of institutional physics to account for Einstein's openness to bold new ideas. In Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps , his recent tour de force , Peter Galison left electrodynamics and the old Poincare v Einstein historiography behind in order to show that both men were deeply involved with one of the pressing technological problems of their time: the synchronisation of clocks. While he readily admits that "time synchonisation... was not all of special relativity", it was still the "crowning step". In pressing his case, Galison retells an anecdote about how Einstein explained his time-coordination scheme to Besso by pointing to a clock tower outside Bern in the village of Muri that was not synchronised like the other clock towers in the city. This makes for a nice story, but unfortunately it appears to be based on one of those countless anecdotes about Einstein told by second-hand sources decades after the event.

For the gifted writer Richard Panek, nothing galvanises the imagination more than a good anecdote. So he elaborates on this mythic tale by claiming that Einstein moved his family to an outlying neighbourhood of Bern just so that he could observe the unsynchronised clock in Muri! Mainly, though, Panek writes about what Einstein could not see because it cannot be seen. In The Invisible Century , he argues that Einstein and Freud shared a deep intellectual affinity because both worked on the frontier of the invisible - relativity and the unconscious - making their work emblematic for 20th-century modernity. In particular, this meant that both broke with the dominant positivism espoused by the philosopher-physicist Ernst Mach, and by so doing they created two "new sciences": cosmology and psychoanalysis.

Whether or not one agrees with Karl Popper's view that psychoanalysis lacks the hallmark of a true science - falsifiability - Freud dedicated his life to launching what he firmly believed was a new scientific discipline. Einstein, by contrast, was rarely concerned with cosmological issues, and when he did take them up in 1917, it was something akin to an afterthought. After struggling to find his gravitational field equations in November 1915, he sought to apply them to the whole universe with the help of the mathematician Jakob Grommer, who collaborated with him for some ten years. Their failure led to Einstein's modification of the field equations: by introducing a small cosmological constant he obtained a model of the universe that was static but also finite and bounded due to the overall curvature of space. Panek conveniently overlooks the fact that Einstein's cosmological model, indeed his whole theory of gravitation, was deeply inspired by the ideas of Mach, as Einstein openly acknowledged.

John Forrester's essay on Einstein and Freud in Einstein on the Beach presents a far more compelling portrait of these two exotic personalities. When they finally met in Berlin in 1926, Freud afterwards quipped: "He understands as much about psychology as I do about physics, so we had a very pleasant talk." Einstein's mixed feelings toward Freud are reflected in a diary entry from 1931: "If there has to be a psychiatrist, I should prefer Freud. I do not believe in him, but I love very much his concise style and his original, although rather extravagant mind...". The ambivalence was mutual; Freud found Einstein's pacifist activities naive and thought that his confessional credo - which he recorded to support the German League of Human Rights in 1932 - was downright ridiculous.

During his final years at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein went on daily walks with Kurt Godel, an Austrian logician and a genius whose otherworldly qualities place Einstein's more limited capacity to forgo sensual pleasures in sharp relief. Unfortunately, neither man brought a tape-recorder when they took their walks, so we will never know what they talked about. In fact, no one is likely to come closer than the philosopher Palle Yourgrau has in his brilliant portrait of their friendship, A World Without Time . The title is an allusion to Gödel's universe, a global space-time model with time-like future-directed paths that lead back to the past. Godel and Einstein no doubt discussed the implications of this model on numerous occasions, but we have no evidence that it exerted any significant impact on Einstein's cosmological views. Nevertheless, Yourgrau convincingly argues that Einstein's philosophical sensibilities as a strict determinist placed him closer to Godel's Platonism than to the mainstream positivism advocated by most physicists.

For this reason, Godel and Einstein also shared a deep distrust of quantum theory, the central theme of Edmund Blair Bolles's provocative Einstein Defiant . Bolles pictures the quantum revolution largely as a battle between two geniuses, Einstein and the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, whose see-saw encounters shook the collective soul of younger theoretical physicists. Pais, who knew and revered both men, surely plays down the tensions that grew between them during the 1920s, claiming that their "mutual esteem and affection" remained undiminished throughout their lives. In pointed contrast, Bolles portrays their relationship as an intense rivalry that inexorably led to open conflict.

Einstein, the defiant, steps on stage via a dramatic appearance at the Reichstag during one of those crazy, chaotic first days after the Kaiser's abdication in 1918. Bolles's account abounds in such scene-setting, including the sights Einstein and Bohr passed on their tram rides through Berlin and Copenhagen. More intriguing still, he writes about what they are likely to have talked about during those rides. These vivid passages make particularly suggestive reading, so much so that an innocent reader might easily imagine that the writer was an eyewitness at the scene. Whether or not the defiant one wins these little arguments, in the end (circa 1930) he comes off much better than the Dane. Here Einstein needs no artificial sainthood; he merely needs to stand up and speak out against the Copenhagen clan, as he so famously did.

A year before his death, Einstein wrote about Bohr: "He utters his opinions like one perpetually groping and never like one who believes to be in the possession of definite truth." Bolles concurs, but inverts the valuation: he likens Bohr to a charismatic guru, a muddle-headed thinker who mesmerised a bright young generation of theoretical physicists into groping along with him. Gregarious and warm-hearted by nature, he also possessed a stubborn tenacity that could turn him into an "unrelenting fanatic" when faced with opposition, particularly within his own ranks.

Even if this characterisation of Bohr's personality were believable, Bolles trivialises the history of quantum theory by dealing only with a thin line of developments and focusing exclusively on these. Amid all his allusions to the hurly-burly of urban life in the 1920s, Bolles seems to have all but forgotten that young Bohr took theoretical physics by storm in 1913 with his quantum model of the atom. None was more impressed with Bohr's achievement than Einstein. Readers searching for a full-blooded account of his role in that story, without all the histrionics and distractions, need look no farther than the closing chapters of Pais's " Subtle is the Lord ".

David E. Rowe is professor of the history of science, Johannes-Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany. Robert Schulmann is a former director of the Einstein Papers Project, Boston University, US.

Einstein on the Beach: Der Physiker als Phänomen

Editor - Michael Hagner
Publisher - Fischer Taschenbuch-Verlag www.fischerverlage.de
Pages - 326
Price - €13.90
ISBN - 3 596 16515 6

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